Young Earth or Old? The Debate That Divides Christians — But Shouldn’t

By Tom Gilson Published on July 8, 2018

Christians — mostly in Evangelical circles — are seriously divided over a hot and long-lasting controversy. It has nothing to do with sex, politics or money, yet it’s alienated young people, it’s divided churches, and it drives many from the faith.

That controversy is over the way we should understand the first pages of Genesis, and the related information we can obtain from nature. Most of the heat on the ground comes from people who don’t know the issues well enough to form their own opinion. That includes me. And — unless you’re a specialist in the field — it includes you, too. 

And yet many not only form opinions. They form dogmas. And they pronounce judgment on others who disagree. 

Young Earth or Old?

People on one side typically say the debate is all about whether we really believe what the Bible says, or whether we’re “compromisers” instead. There’s only one way to interpret the days of Genesis 1, they say: as 24-hour Earth days, all occurring within the last 10,000 years or so. Any other reading on it isn’t just wrong; it’s disrespectful toward the Bible’s truth and authority. This  “young earth” view also says that any evidence from science for an older universe is either misleading or misinterpreted.

But this isn’t an argument between believers and unbelievers. That’s a real controversy, yes; but it’s a different one. This one is within the Church.

So people on the other side insist they do believe the Bible, they just don’t think the Bible intends us to interpret Genesis 1 as teaching six 24-hour creation days. People in this “old earth” group agree that God created everything. They believe Genesis 1 is true, except we shouldn’t interpret the days in a literal 24-hour day sense — because that’s not what it intends to say. Most believe the Genesis 2 and 3 account of human origins and the Fall. And they also believe what science says about the age of the universe.

Divisive Criticism

I can’t tell you how often I’ve run into this debate, or how much heat it’s generated. It divided Christians on campus when I was in college more than 40 years ago. It hasn’t cooled down one degree since.

Just a few years ago I was at an Evangelical Philosophical Society conference in Atlanta. A man I’d never met before saw my name tag, and realized I worked with a certain influential ministry. He approached me and practically begged with me, “Would you please, please do what you can to stop these young-earth creationists? They’re driving people away from Christianity! They’re killing our witness!”

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Young-earthers are even more likely to criticize old-earth believers. I had a friend I’ll call Mark. Mark and I shared many church fellowship meals together, and we even did some church-based teaching together. Then he found out I’m not a young-earther. From that point forward he doubted my whole faith in Christ. It took him a year or two until he finally came back and told me, “You know, Tom, I’m starting to believe again you really do believe in the Bible after all.”

He was convinced there was only one way to believe the Bible: the young-earth way. That alone was enough — in spite of everything else he knew about me — to make him doubt I was really a Christian.

Barriers like that kill our witness. No one in the Church has any business raising them. And although young-earthers often say this is about heading off biblical “compromise,” very often they’re wrong about that. 

A Case Made From Scripture

Hugh Ross, founder of Reasons to Believe, is the most prominent old-earth proponent. He’s an astrophysicist, and he’s also a pastor. When he speaks science, he speaks from knowledge and respect. When he speaks Bible he does the same. His biblical reasoning is, well, biblical reasoningnot compromise. He studies the whole context, and makes a faithful attempt to be true to what Scripture intends to say. 

I read another book from a new author the other day, Tom Gender, whose case for an old earth is mostly based on Hebrew verb constructions.

Readers can approach these views of in either of two ways. One is to write them off immediately as unfaithful to the text. The other is to wonder: Are they right or not? Only a very few readers would know the original language and context well enough to agree or disagree knowledgeably.

Gender could certainly be wrong. So could Hugh Ross. So could Ken Ham.

It’s common among young-earthers to point to the “plain text of the language” as their authority. “Just read what’s there!” they’ll say. It can’t be that simple, though, for it leaves two huge questions unanswered. Gender points us to one of them: The meaning in English translation might not be exactly what it is in the original Hebrew. An even greater issue is that it completely ignores the historic context in which it was first written and first read. 

Most people who write old-earthers as unfaithful to Scripture, not having studied the original language and the historical context, simply haven’t worked through the issue well enough to know what they’re talking about. They’re rushing toward dogma, in the worst sense of the word.

Rushing to Ill-Informed Judgment

So I wonder how someone like Mark would read these authors. He certainly did take a dogmatic position with me — even though the question has always required a high level of expertise in multiple fields, including biblical Hebrew, Ancient Near East literature and culture, and four or five major branches of science. He was less well-read in it than I was. Yet still he judged me.

That was wrong. It was a premature conclusion based on not enough knowledge, and it was toxic to our relationship. And what happened between the two of us was just a microcosm of what’s happened in the Church overall — especially among white Evangelicals — across several decades now.

Hugh Ross could be wrong. So could Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum. I sat with one of his top co-leaders in his office at that museum a few years ago, explaining how I wasn’t ready to make dogmatic young-earth assertions. Even if their view were right, it would require an expert’s knowledge to say so with such certainty. He said, “But Tom, you do know enough! It’s right there in Genesis!”  Which is to say, it’s there in the English translation without historical context. Which is inadequate.

That same leader invited me several times on a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon, where young-earth geologists would show how it all happened through the Flood. I declined, saying, “I’m not a geologist. I would begin the trip not knowing how to assess your geological arguments, and I would end it not knowing how to assess them. I don’t need to play the game of pretending to get it in between.”

Needed: Humility

We need humility in this. We need to quit pretending we have expert knowledge.

I say we all need some humility in this. Very few of us are experts; we need to quit pretending we have expert knowledge. I’m pretty sure old-earth creationism is true, but I know I could be wrong. I’ve known a few young-earth creationists who also recognize they could be wrong.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen plenty of young-earth creationists say that those who disagree can’t really be faithful believers in the Bible. That just isn’t true, and it doesn’t help church unity one bit.

Ultimately I hope we’ll all know the truth of creation so clearly, every Bible-believer will be able to agree on it. I don’t expect that to happen very soon. Until then, my one great request to us all is to treat the question with the humility it calls for. It’s still a matter of study, so let the specialists study it.

While they do that, it’s still an open question. Treat it that way. Don’t divide over it. It separates us, and it drives people from the faith.

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